“I have chaired the Group and our message is clear: the purpose of CfE is to promote better teaching and learning. This must not be obscured by bureaucracy and unnecessary paperwork. That is unacceptable and needs to stop now.” (Dr Alasdair Allan, Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, Nov 2013, http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2013/11/5316/1)

The above statement from the Working Group on Tackling Bureaucracy is unequivocal. I continue to believe in the benefits of CfE, including substantial evidence of improved pedagogy since its introduction; however, like the group, I have become extremely concerned about some of the directions taken under the auspices of the new curriculum. Their message is long overdue, and very much to be welcomed by all who are interesting in schools being places of education.

I am, however, a little uneasy that the current difficulties will be blamed on schools and teachers. Schools are, to quote my colleague Jenny Reeves, to a large extent caught between a rock and a hard place (see https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/handle/1893/980). Many of these difficulties lie in the processes by which the curriculum has been contextualised and recontextualised (to use the language of sociologist Basil Bernstein). As Walter Humes and I have argued,  the initial contextualisation of the curriculum – its iteration via high level documents produced between 2004 and 2007 – had built in flaws due to the adoption of differing, largely incompatible curriculum planning models (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/2110). Subsequent recontextualisation – notably the BTC series, the later summaries of these, and more recent CfE briefings – have magnified these flaws, acting often as reinterpretations of previous interpretations. Such processes are well documented in the research literature on curriculum policy; for example, US academics Supovitz and Weinbaum (2008) discuss the tendency for policy to mutate through a process they call iterative refraction. Iterative refraction occurs across multiple levels and within multiple contexts – indeed wherever the curriculum is reinterpreted. Existing values, beliefs and practices (institutional logics) play a key role here, as they serve to mediate the intrinsic logics of policy. The result of multiple recontextualisation is often practice that bears little relation to the original policy.

In the case of CfE, many worthy aspirations have been subverted through recontextualisation. This happened within policy, as macro-level policy mutated through the development of meso-level policy guidance. It also occurred in schools and local authorities, as existing practices were recycled and tweaked to tick the CfE boxes. A good example lies in the ways in which CfE has become increasingly dominated by bureaucratic assessment systems. Early documentation warned explicitly of the dangers of being assessment-driven. For example, the over-arching paper accompanying the 2007 draft E&Os said that the new outcomes were explicitly not assessment standards. By 2010, BTC5 was explicitly naming them as such. Once we add the existing practices of assessment in schools to this (including local authority quality improvement procedures based around attainment, and the expectations accompanying inspections), then it is unsurprising that schools have been proactive in developing bureaucratic  procedures for assessing, tracking, recording and reporting. This is, after all, the way in which they have been ‘encouraged’ to behave for years. The following anguished Twitter comments illustrate graphically how CfE has come to be seen by many teachers:

“On the ground in my school, all we are doing is writing courses and assessing all the time!” (October 2013)

“Living thru the paperwork nightmare that is strangling good CFE learning n teaching! You want 2 see N4/5 assesm” (November 2013)

For an interesting analysis of how CfE has morphed into an assessment driven enterprise, where both teachers and students spend their time tracking progress, see the recent chapter by Jenny Reeves on the concept of the successful learner (https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/handle/1893/10293).

So what is the answer? It seems to me that the recent report by the Working Group on Tackling Bureaucracy goes some of the way to address the problems, by identifying responsible bodies and actions to address them. However, it will be insufficient if the burden of blame is simply passed to schools and teachers, as the tone of the report at least partially suggests. And it needs to be more explicit in addressing the systemic features of Scottish schooling that are arguably the root causes of performative bureaucratic systems. Our recent research on teacher agency (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/13070) suggests strongly that exhorting teachers to be agentic as curriculum developers will not work, if we do not simultaneously take account of the structures and cultures that both enable and disable them in their work. I therefore have some additional suggestions to supplement the worthy recommendations of the working group:

1.       The Scottish Government, Education Scotland, local authorities and schools should carefully examine the relationship between input and output regulation of the work of teachers (see our chapter at http://www.cidree.org/publications/yearbook_2013 for a fuller discussion of these terms). This is essential if we are to make the most of CfE; reducing input regulation (e.g. content prescription) is a futile exercise of teachers’ work continues to be trammelled by heavy duty accountability mechanisms that foster the development of performative cultures in schools (for a vision of the hell that is the daily life in many English schools, see Amanda Keddie’s excellent paper at http://tinyurl.com/p7getub).

2.       We need to minimise the possibilities for iterative refraction through multiple recontextualisation of the curriculum. This can best be achieved through teachers working directly with the high level documents; in other words making sense of CfE’s excellent big ideas and developing fit-for-purpose practices that reflect these ideas.

3.       This will in turn require the following:

a.       Sustained capacity (and confidence) building in curriculum development, including the development of understanding of different models for curriculum planning;

b.      The production of curricular guidance by national bodies that moves away from reinterpretation and towards the specification of processes through which teachers might engage with the big ideas;

c.       Support (and quality time) for professional dialogue which guides teachers through the complex business of curriculum development. Our recent collaborative professional enquiry work with East Lothian teachers provides one such way of working. Better still is Master’s level study by teachers, which provides a more systematic, in-depth way of doing collaborative professional enquiry.

d.      The ready availability of externally sourced cognitive resources which interrupt the recycling of existing practices. This includes access to external expertise (the critical friend), summaries of relevant research and the development of archetypal models of pedagogy (New Zealand’s enquiry-based learning model seems to be far more useful in this respect than the oft-unexplored concept of active learning – see http://tinyurl.com/2fws5jv).

e.      Trust in teachers that befits their status as graduates and education professionals.


Supovitz, J.A. & Weinbaum, E.H. (Eds.) (2008), The Implementation gap: understanding reform in high schools. New York: Teachers College Press.


3 thoughts on “An end to bureaucracy? Or bureaucracy as an end of education?

  1. Fascinating contribution. Fair exposition of how some of us feel. That being said, I await my first checklist and ‘return’ of reflective questions asking me how we are tracking our progress in debureaucratisation!

  2. Found this helpful as a HT to aid thinking about our curriculum in school -as we think about what it should look like and what are the main drivers and the competing priorities and other influences – will be sharing blog and generally accessible articles with staff for discussion as we review and consider curriculum approaches alongside curricular frameworks and OTWL.

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